Chao Zheng accepts a Skype call, exchanging hellos as he props up his phone on a wooden desk in his apartment. It’s midnight where he lives in China's Fujian province, and Zheng will go to bed right after our call.
Zheng just completed a degree at The Ohio State University in August. It was a rough year.
“At first, I would just want to try gambling because it is illegal in my country,” Zheng says. “And I went to a casino in Las Vegas, that was my very first time to gamble.”
He was hooked. While in school, Zheng started gambling at the Hollywood Casino. After overhearing a classmate talk about school counseling, he sought help at Ohio State's Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Service (CCS).
At this point, he had lost over $1,000.
“The objective reason is I had no money to gamble again,” Zheng says. “So I had to stop.”
Maryhaven specialists taught Zheng about how his brain functions and how to curb his addiction. A family member helped him afford rent and tuition during his recovery, but otherwise he didn’t tell anyone about his issue.
“It’s like cultural difference,” Zheng says. “It’s a very big mistake. And I cannot let any of my family know about it.”
People like Zheng who struggle with addiction to gambling often risk losing everything for the rush of the next bet. Gambling addiction is always hard to talk about, but it’s even tougher in some communities.
That’s why the local organizations Asian American Community Services and Maryhaven Gambling Intervention are teaming up to help Asian residents who struggle with gambling addiction.
Cambodian senior Vincent Long, who works with AACS, agrees that his culture also doesn’t openly discuss gambling. Long speaks little English, so we conversed with the help of a translator.
"Even people here, they go, so they don't want to tell us, 'O.K. I have a problem gambling.' No, they never admit it," he says. "They never say they're doing it. Even if they lose money, they say they never lose money."
Long says silence about gambling comes from a culture of preserving honor, which is central to many Asian communities.
“Even your really close friends, I just want to tell them even my friends’ gambling problems, and I want to tell them to stop it, they don’t want to tell me too,” Long says. “A close friend doesn’t want to say, ‘I’m going gambling. I have a problem with gambling.’”
Long says he left Cambodia at age 20 and never had time to learn to gamble.
“If it’s not wasting money, it’s wasting time," Long says. "It’s not good."
But it’s not as easy as writing off all gambling as bad. Asian Gambling Prevention Project program manager Danny Nam says gambling games are integral to many Asian cultures.
“It is a prominent part of our culture," Nam says. "Whether it’s like community celebrations, so Koreans might play Hwatu for New Years when they get together, Vietnamese might shoot dice with the different animals. I don’t want to butcher the pronunciation, but kids grow up playing that.”
The latter game Nam is referring to is called Bầu Cua Tôm Cá.
Maryhaven Gambling Intervention program specialist George Hicks says Asian Americans are among the four groups at most risk for problem gambling. The others are men under the age of 25, seniors, and African American men.
Connecting With Communities
Hicks reached out to Nam in an attempt to find someone who might have credibility among Asian Americans.
“We started outreach in the different communities, but we could never get access to the Asian communities,” Hicks says.
Nearly 60,000 Asians live in Columbus, according to state data.
“I kind of laughed because there’s so many different groups that has he mentioned, have different histories and circumstances for why they’re here,” Nam says.
Although when initially asked, Nam thought gambling may not be problematic, he came to realize the group could help improve Asian Americans' relationships with gambling here.
“I thought about it a little bit deeply, and I remember like certain family members, including my aunty who was heavily affected," Nam says. "I don’t want to speak on that.”
The state took interest in the project, and now Hicks and Nam want to pull together the seven largest Asian groups in Columbus for a focus group on gambling.
“What is your belief in gambling? How often do you gamble? Do you see it as a problem in your community? Do you have any recommendations?” Hicks hopes to ask.
They’ll follow that with an introductory video for social workers.
“We’re gonna have a training for social workers that work with Asian populations, community liaisons, and just community people from the community. And we’re gonna bring in the state and Maryhaven to do a day training on informed gambling,” Hicks says. “Our hope is four or five people will say, ‘I wanna learn more for my practice,’ and then we’ll take them through our gambling training.”
Oeun Chan is one such social worker. She works with Cambodian seniors in particular, and says some of her clients have ruined their families’ finances by gambling. But she says the key is moderation.
“You play for once a year, I don’t think it’s bad," she says. "You spend your limit. You lucky, you lucky. You don’t lucky, you don’t press your luck. I do play maybe $20."
Hicks and Nam hope to start the focus groups in two months.